This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

"Alright, I got laid last night! That's what you want to hear me say, right?"
-Lee Ritter.

Like Lady Frankenstein, this movie is from the house of Roger Corman.
Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his wife Susan (Sherry Miles) are at an art gallery one evening. There, they befriend the beautiful Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall), who, unbeknownst to them, had just viciously dispatched a guy who was attempting to assault her earlier that evening.
Diane invites the couple to her estate in the desert.
Lee and Susan have some trouble finding Diane's place, and the people they ask at a gas station don't prove helpful. But Diane then shows up in a dune buggy and takes them to her home. That night, Lee and Susan are making love in the bedroom Diane has loaned them, unaware that she is watching them via a two way mirror.
As the weekend goes on, Lee becomes more and more entranced with Diane's beauty to the point where they begin making out in a barn only to be stopped when Susan is frightened by a rattlesnake that touches her as she's sunbathing. Diane personally sucks out any venom the snake placed in Susan and it is after this that Susan begins dreaming of Diane lusting after both her and Lee.
The couple later goes to the nearby cemetery and discovers that Diane's late husband died nearly a century earlier. From this, Susan deduces that Diane is actually a vampire. By that point, though, Diane has seduced and killed Lee and begins to do the same with Susan. But Susan stops her before she gets to the killing part. A chase ensues, during which, in the film's best jump scene, Susan gets on a bus only to find Diane already on it. Diane then slowly takes the seat behind Susan for the remainder of the ride. From the bus, Diane continues chasing Susan before they come across a stand selling crosses and crucifixes. Seizing her chance, Susan takes one and uses it on Diane and implores the people around them to follow suit, which they do.
After Diane's death, Susan discusses the matter with her friend Carl (Gene Shane), only to discover that he's a vampire himself.
Yarnall is definitely the reason to see this as she is quite the femme fatale here. She gained fame in the 1960s with appearances in numerous movies and TV shows. Her most famous appearance is opposite Elvis Presley in Live a Little, Love a Little (1968), although I will always remember her from her appearance in the Star Trek episode "The Apple."
While both Blodgett and Miles don't exactly make the same impression, the movie itself has a nice atmosphere thanks to both Yarnall and the musical score from Clancy B Glass III and Roger Dollarhide.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Agony Booth review: Star Trek: Turnabout Intruder (1969)

The Agony Booth now has a series of reviews called Movies That Predicted Trump. These include reviews of such classic films as The Dead Zone and Bulworth. This contribution to that series focuses on the final episode of the original Star Trek series.

There was a Friday the 13th this past January, so I invited a few friends over to binge watch the first few entries from that film series to commemorate the occasion. After the arrival of my first guest, a major Star Trek fan, we decided to kill time waiting for our food by watching Star Trek‘s final episode “Turnabout Intruder” on Amazon. As we watched it, my friend used moments in the show to make digs at the current Commander in Chief. This got me thinking that this specific episode would make an ideal entry as a TV Show that Predicted Trump.

The show’s final episode begins with the Enterprise arriving on Camus II in answer to a distress call from an archeology team studying the ruins there. As it turns out, said team is headed by a former flame of Kirk’s, one Janice Lester (Sandra Smith). Her associate/paramour Dr. Arthur Coleman (Harry Landers) informs Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that she’s suffering from radiation exposure. But she’s able to recognize Kirk and asks him to stay with her while Spock, McCoy, and Coleman go off to investigate possible life signs nearby.

Kirk and Lester shoot the breeze, with her complaining that women can’t be starship captains. Some fans have interpreted her line to mean that her romance with Kirk ended because of his career, although Gene Roddenberry himself would later say that this line was sexist and basically apologized for it after the fact.

The captain then walks around the area a bit, taking a gander at what looks like a huge monolith. Lester then produces a doohickey which stuns Kirk, pinning him to the monolith. I guess Bones didn’t have his morning cup of booze that day, because Lester leaps out of her bed full of energy, so you’d think that he could have determined that she wasn’t exactly sick.

Lester, with a huge Grinch-like smile spread across her face, walks over to the machine where Kirk is pinned down. She then walks over to the other side of the monolith, lifts a lever up and then down before she and Kirk are seen swapping bodies. Cue the title credits.

Lester-as-Kirk wakes up and is astonished that the procedure has been successful. She deactivates the machine and carries the barely-conscious Kirk-as-Lester over to the bed. Lester-as-Kirk then gloats over how much better she is now physically while making sexist comments that a colleague of mine on this site expertly highlighted when she wrote her own review of this episode.

Spock, Bones, and Coleman then return, with McCoy stating that there was no saving the rest of the unseen staff. At the same time, Coleman glances at Kirk-as-Lester on the bed, suggesting he was in on his sweetheart’s plans to have a sex change. He states that Kirk-as-Lester is close to death, and Lester-as-Kirk suggests taking everyone back to the ship.

After beaming back, Lester-as-Kirk goes to sickbay, where Coleman is watching over Kirk-as-Lester. Coleman berates her for not killing Kirk, even though he did everything she asked of him, including killing their staff by exposing them to that radiation. But Lester-as-Kirk simply stammers, saying she couldn’t kill him, but that doesn’t matter because she’s now a captain. Hmm… someone who gives no good reason for not doing something and says it doesn’t matter? Kinda reminds me of someone.

McCoy and Chapel come in and attend to their patient, but Lester-as-Kirk soon relieves McCoy of that duty, giving Kirk-as-Lester over to Coleman. McCoy strongly objects, but can do nothing but leave while Chapel obeys Coleman’s orders to sedate Kirk-as-Lester just as he’s regaining consciousness.

Lester-as-Kirk then silently and proudly walks to the ship’s bridge while thinking (in Kirk’s voice, mind you, even though you’d think it’d be Lester’s voice) that her patience has been rewarded and she’s now a starship captain.

Not long after arriving, Lester-as-Kirk orders Sulu to change course to a colony where she plans to take Kirk-as-Lester. Spock points out that this diversion would delay their rendezvous with another starship. He also points out that there’s a starbase on their designated route with better medical facilities. But this reasoning doesn’t keep her from reminding us of our current president as she digs her heels in and tells Sulu to increase speed to the colony.

We then cut to Kirk’s quarters, where Bones tells Lester-as-Kirk that Coleman was noted for being incompetent at his job (someone who delegates jobs to people who are incompetent? The parallels just keep on coming). But what cracks me up here is the sight of Lester-as-Kirk filing her nails, despite her earlier claims that she hates being a woman. So, she hates her own gender, but hey, she’s still gotta look good, right? Maybe this is a reason why Bones asks Lester-as-Kirk to be examined. She’s hesitant, but then must deal with other matters after Sulu informs him that Starfleet wants an explanation for why the Enterprise’s scheduled rendezvous is being delayed.

Next, we’re in Sickbay, with Kirk-as-Lester waking up. He sees that the medical scanner on top of the beds shows that he’s fine, but before he can ask Bones why he now has breasts, Coleman pops in, saying he’s in charge now. Kirk-as-Lester attempts to reason with him and then also Chapel, but Coleman informs the nurse that Kirk-as-Lester is delusional. As Chapel goes off to get another sedative (you’d think Coleman would have some at his immediate disposal for such a contingency), he tells Kirk-as-Lester that he’s insane, while the captain looks at his new face in the mirror with (I’m guessing) horror.

In bed again, Kirk-as-Lester makes a log entry in his head (and with Lester’s voice and not his own, and how is he making this specific log entry, anyway?). Chapel comes in and the captain apologizes for his earlier outburst and politely asks to see McCoy or Spock. The nurse tells him that it may be possible to see Spock before they reach the colony. Kirk-as-Lester then says that he thought the ship was set to make that rendezvous. Now you’d think this would’ve prompted Chapel to ask this woman she’s never met before how she could possibly know the ship’s itinerary, but she simply says that Kirk-as-Lester needs to recuperate at the colony first. Chapel then gives the captain what looks like a glass of soda pop, saying it’s a remedy. Kirk-as-Lester pretends to like it so Chapel will be fine with leaving her alone for a moment. He then uses that moment to dump the rest of the pop on the floor and shatter the glass to use the shards as a cutting tool for the straps keeping him on the bed.

In another part of Sickbay, Spock and McCoy are discussing Kirk-as-Lester’s erratic behavior. Spock thinks that this behavior may have something to do with the brief period Kirk and Lester were alone on Camus II together and suggests talking to her. Lester-as-Kirk arrives, ready for that exam. Just a moment later, Kirk-as-Lester arrives, telling Spock and Bones he needs to talk to them. But Lester-as-Kirk ominously walks toward him, and with just two swift moves, brings him to the ground. I know Kirk is currently in a body with less muscles, but we’ve seen him engaged in fisticuffs plenty of times by this point, so you can’t tell me that he still doesn’t have had a good fighting chance even if he’s in a different body. This actually reminds me of those times on Deep Space Nine where Kira was able to take on Klingons twice her size but got her ass handed to her whenever someone of equal build took her on.

Spock and McCoy are aghast by Lester-as-Kirk’s actions, but Bones proceeds with the examination, while Spock goes to the quarters that Lester-as-Kirk told security to put the captain in. Although she shows signs of apprehension, Lester-as-Kirk seems to pass the medical examination with flying colors. At the same time, Kirk-as-Lester attempts to convince Spock of what happened, even citing the events of the previous episodes “The Tholian Web” and “The Empath.” He finally convinces Spock after the latter performs a mind-meld (and a thousand fanfics are born). But there’s still no actual proof to this story, so Spock suggests they go see McCoy. However, the security guard in the room objects, but then Spock brings him down with a nerve pinch. He does the same with the guard outside, but not before he has the chance to inform Lester-as-Kirk, who then arrives with more security. She then makes a ship-wide announcement that Spock is under arrest and will stand trial for mutiny (and to think, Trump simply fired his attorney general for disagreeing with him).

At the trial itself, with Bones, Scotty, and Lester-as-Kirk presiding, she actually makes a log entry stating that she no longer fears discovery (I wonder how Starfleet brass reacted to that story once they read it). Spock reveals that his mind-meld with Kirk-as-Lester told him what happened. When Scotty says that more substantial evidence is needed, Spock says that Kirk-as-Lester’s presence is required, but she’s inexplicably locked up. Lester-as-Kirk, once again reminding us of the current president, simply states that he’s insane and that’s it. But she relents before bringing up the examination McCoy was giving at the time Spock and the captain were talking. Bones admits that there’s nothing wrong with the captain, and Spock admits disappointment over those findings, but he’s not giving up.

Kirk-as-Lester is brought in and remains cool despite Lester-as-Kirk’s condescending attitude toward him. He even manages to say that the two forcibly swapped bodies with a straight face. When Lester-as-Kirk asks why Lester would do such as thing, we get the line of dialogue that convinced me this episode predicted Trump.

“To get the power she craved. To obtain a position she doesn’t warrant by temperament or training. And most of all she wanted to murder James Kirk, a man who once loved her!”

Okay, that last part may not apply to Trump, but I wouldn’t necessarily put it past him, either.

When Lester-as-Kirk asks for witnesses, Spock states that the real issue here is if body-swapping is actually possible. He points out that, given all that the crew has experienced by this point, switching bodies, let alone genders, may not exactly be as far-fetched as it sounds.

Lester-as-Kirk then goes on a rant, saying that this is all just meant to make Spock captain. She then just tells Spock to give all this up and things will go back to normal. But Spock is resolute and she gives us another reminder of Trump by pounding the table before saying that she and Scotty (who has a priceless “Dude, tone it down some!” look on his face) and Bones will take a recess to vote on the matter.

Scotty privately tells Bones that he’ll vote in Spock’s favor. He then asks McCoy what he thinks would happen if Lester-as-Kirk was outvoted. Bones states he doesn’t know, but Scotty says that they both know she’d do something drastic. This is when Scotty states that they’d have no choice but to take over the ship. McCoy expresses misgivings about this, but says he’s prepared for the vote.

Alas, that vote turns out to be unnecessary, as Lester-as-Kirk has the communications officer who isn’t Uhura play back McCoy and Scotty’s conversation. She then declares them all guilty and gives them the death penalty, over Sulu and Chekov’s objections. But they grudgingly resume their posts as ordered.

On the bridge, Sulu and Chekov remind us that they have more personality than the security guards by refusing to take any more orders from Lester-as-Kirk. This leads to another Trump-esque hissy fit before we see Lester’s image over Kirk’s face, signaling that the body transfer is weakening.

Lester-as-Kirk then goes to Coleman and asks him to kill Kirk-as-Lester. Coleman points out all the bad things he’s done for her, but he won’t add murder to the list (what about their staff on Camus II?). But she convinces him to do it so they won’t be exposed as murderers. Kirk-as-Lester also seems to make a move to kiss Coleman as she does this, so that may have been a factor for him as well.

With a phaser and a hypo full of poison, the duo go to the cell where Spock, Scotty, McCoy, and Kirk-as-Lester are being held. Lester-as-Kirk says that they’ll be put in separate cells to prevent any further conspiracy. The captain is let out first but quickly attempts to overcome Coleman, just as the transfer weakens further and Kirk and Lester are back in their normal bodies.

Lester has another hissy fit and tries to lash out at Kirk, but is quickly disarmed and goes to Coleman for comfort. He asks to take care of her as Bones leads them off (never mind that Coleman helped her kill their staff).

Kirk expresses pity for Lester with the final line of the series:

“Her life could’ve been as rich as any woman’s. If only… If only…”

Given this episode’s tone, I’m guess he wanted to add “if only she had a penis”, but children watch this show too, so some discretion was required there.

This episode is not held in high regard by fans and rightly so. It’s arguably the most sexist episode of Star Trek. Like “Spock’s Brain”, the premise is sheer bullshit. But like that episode, it’s good for a few laughs, with Shatner giving us the Shatner mannerisms that comedians take to like fish to water.

The good news is that the original Trek series would later get a true, proper finale with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

The bad news is that, like the Enterprise in this episode, the U.S. is currently under the command of someone who basically has a hissy fit whenever they’re countered. The only difference is that that person didn’t need to swap bodies in order to obtain the position.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Agony Booth review: Leonard Nimoy's best (non-Spock) work

My newest Agony Booth article looks at Leonard Nimoy's best work when he wasn't donning the famous Spock ears.
Like many others, I too was disappointed with the results of November’s presidential election, and am feeling ambivalent regarding the new administration. Still, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying the holiday season. One gift I received this past Christmas was a copy of William Shatner’s book Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, which details his relationship with his Star Trek compatriot Leonard Nimoy.

It’s been nearly two years since Nimoy’s passing, and due in no small part to the current political climate, his contribution to the optimism that Star Trek provided remains both relevant and timeless. But as Nimoy himself illustrated throughout his professional life, there was so much more to him than his unique portrayal of a super-intelligent extraterrestrial who did his best to minimize emotion. The magical irony of that, however, is that millions were able to identify with the alien nature the character of Spock presented.

This all led me to consider Nimoy’s best work when he did not don the famous pointy ears, which I now present in no particular order.

Mission: Impossible (1969-1971)
Soon after Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969, Nimoy became a regular on another NBC series, Mission: Impossible, during its fourth and fifth seasons. He portrayed Andrew “The Great” Paris, who was an actor, magician, and master of disguise. While this character didn’t become as richly defined as Spock, it was still fun seeing Nimoy interact with other greats such as Peter Graves, Lesley Ann Warren, and Greg Morris.

A Woman Called Golda (1982)
This TV movie starred Ingrid Bergman in her final role as Golda Meir, who spent her life fighting for the rights of Jews everywhere and became Prime Minister of Israel, a post she served from 1969 to 1974. Bergman won a posthumous Emmy Award for her performance, and Nimoy earned an Emmy nomination playing her husband Morris Meyerson (he previously earned Emmy nominations for each of Star Trek‘s three seasons).

In Search of… (1977-1982)
Another present I received this past Christmas was the DVD box set of this wonderful series, which was hosted by Nimoy. This series looked at unexplained phenomena, ranging from Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ESP, the Amityville Horror, killer bees, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and even the assassinations of both Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Producer Alan Landsburg created this half-hour series following a trilogy of hour-long documentaries (In Search of Ancient Astronauts, In Search of Ancient Mysteries, and The Outer Space Connection) which were narrated by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. Nimoy was selected to host the series after Serling died in 1975, and he proved to be the icing on this delicious cake, as the show was wonderfully informative. Watch any episode and you can see the interest Nimoy expresses in the topic that each segment is tackling. Nimoy’s dedication to the series was rewarded when Landsburg allowed him to write the show’s segment on artist Vincent Van Gogh. The artist’s brother Theo was also portrayed by Nimoy on-stage in Vincent, based on letters the two brothers wrote to each other.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
I actually prefer the 1956 original (which itself was based on Jack Finney’s book The Body Snatchers), but Philip Kaufman’s take is still a remake that’s worth watching. Nimoy is quite spooky in the flick as a psychiatrist who falls victim to the title creatures. The fine cast also includes Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Donald Sutherland in the lead role played by Kevin McCarthy in the original. McCarthy himself has a memorable cameo as a victim of the invaders. Don Siegel, who directed the original, also appears as a taxi driver.

As a writer/director: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)/Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Yes, Nimoy played Spock in all three of these films, but I’m specifically focusing on what he did behind the camera.

Nimoy reportedly agreed to play Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in order to settle a lawsuit he had with both Paramount and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. But that film’s financial success led to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Nimoy agreed to play Spock again when producer Harve Bennett (who was a producer on Golda) promised him a great death scene. Thinking there wouldn’t be any more Star Trek films, Nimoy believed this would bring things full circle for the character. The film ended with Spock heroically sacrificing himself to save his crewmates, and this heroic act is one of the reasons the film became embraced as a classic. Not surprisingly, this success gave the green light for further Star Trek films, and Nimoy was approached to participate. He agreed to do Star Trek III on the condition that he could direct the movie.

Yes, it was obvious by that point that Spock would return, but what makes Search for Spock terrific is everything surrounding that inevitable ending. Kirk and the others willingly toss their careers away once they realize there’s a way to get their pal back. In addition, their encounter with Klingons led by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) leads to the death of Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) and the destruction of their beloved ship. Hence, like Wrath of Khan, the film ends on a bittersweet note, as while they’ve accomplished their mission, our heroes are forced to hide out on Vulcan as their careers are in the toilet (but they still have each other!). Nimoy himself said that the picture was about friendship and loyalty, and this is what makes it a worthy follow-up to Wrath of Khan.

The success of this film, which was Nimoy’s directorial debut (although he had directed some television prior to that, including an episode of Shatner’s T.J. Hooker series), allowed him to direct the next film in the series, The Voyage Home. Our heroes attempt to go home to face the music for their crimes in the previous movie, but their trip is deferred when they learn a massive probe is tearing Earth apart. This leads to Kirk’s decision to travel to back in time to contemporary Earth in order to get those famous whales that can save the future. This film is more lighthearted compared to the previous movies, but that tone is utilized perfectly in service of the plot, unlike both Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Insurrection, which overdid the comedy (and were unfunny as a result).

After the failure of Final Frontier, Nimoy was offered the chance to direct The Undiscovered Country. He declined, but agreed to write the script with returning director Nicholas Meyer (who directed Wrath of Khan). In this film, the release of which occurred not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Federation and the Klingon Empire take the first steps towards peace, while Captain Kirk must also deal with his own prejudices regarding Klingons, whom he blames for the death of his son. In addition, this film coincided with Star Trek’s silver anniversary, and proved to be a wonderful curtain call for the original series cast. At the same time, Nimoy’s simultaneous appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Unification” two-parter was a nice way of promoting the movie.

Nimoy’s contribution to Star Trek in this manner was also his attempt to prove that while he certainly sought out other acting roles, he did not hate Spock. This confusion came to a head with his first autobiography, titled I Am Not Spock. This in turn led to his second, which he titled I Am Spock.

As a director: Three Men and a Baby (1987)
Nimoy directed a total of six feature films, and the most successful of these was this comedy, released one year after The Voyage Home. A remake of the French film Trois Hommes et un Couffin (Three Men and a Cradle), it centers on three bachelor buddies (Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson) who one day find an infant girl left on their doorstep. Their world quickly changes, and while one of the bachelors confirms that he’s the father, all three eventually become enamored with the new addition to their lives. Personally, I could’ve done without the drug dealer subplot, but the film itself is funny, with our three protagonists attempting to live some kind of a life after having this great responsibility placed upon them. Three Men and a Baby went on to become the biggest moneymaker of 1987. Happily, Nimoy didn’t waste his time directing the inevitable and pointless sequel Three Men and a Little Lady.

With this directorial success, it’s no wonder that Nimoy’s son Adam would go on to become a director himself. The younger Nimoy would even direct two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Rascals” and “Timescape”), as well as a documentary honoring his father, For the Love of Spock.

Of the many heartfelt tributes following his passing, Nimoy’s friend and Star Trek colleague George Takei probably stated it best on social media that Nimoy truly lived long and prospered. The works mentioned above, along with Nimoy’s other work, which including photography and music (Nimoy had five musical albums to his name, the first of which was released in 1967 and called Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space), is proof of how true Takei’s statement is. It should also serve as inspiration to all of us that we too can live long and prosper as Nimoy did, regardless of who’s in the White House.